Althusser’s theory of ideology

On the Reproduction of Capitalism:

Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses
Translated by G.M. Goshgarian

The work of Louis Althusser has proven controversial in the International Socialist tradition, as well as throughout Marxist thought worldwide. In recent years, a revival of interest in his work has taken place. In the past decade, Althusser’s late work Philosophy of the Encounter was translated and published, as well as significant discussions of his work. These include the second edition of Gregory Elliott’s standard study, important books by Warren Montag and Mikko Lahtinen, the lengthy collection titled Encountering Althusser, and the ongoing publications of the journal Décalages.1 The recent translation of the entirety of the manuscript On the Reproduction of Capitalism, from which the famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” was extracted, is an occasion to review some of Althusser’s ideas in the hopes of determining whether his work has made legitimate contributions to the struggle for socialism from below.

On the Reproduction of Capitalism is a relatively late work of Althusser’s, inspired by the mass uprising of workers and students in 1968.2 Committed to his membership in the French Communist Party (PCF), Althusser accepted its conservative response to the movement and refused to support the strikes or demonstrations. For this reason, many of Althusser’s students, who had previously viewed his ideas as a vital new development in revolutionary politics, bitterly rejected him. He had garnered a reputation as an oppositional, radical figure among Communists and the Left more broadly, but was unable to act beyond the dictates of the party bureaucrats.

Why was Althusser unable to break from the PCF? This practical perspective is even more peculiar when we are aware that he fought a lifelong struggle against the party’s leadership and its dominant outlook.3 Nonetheless, he remained committed to this organization because it was a mass working-class party. While his membership in the PCF is often claimed as evidence that he was a doctrinaire Stalinist, Althusser actually hoped to drastically change the party from within, to render it a legitimate organ of the working-class masses that formed its base of support. He believed that abandoning the party would lead to isolation from the working class, and for this reason he felt that a renewed revolutionary Marxist outlook needed to be built through an oppositional role within it. As Ian Birchall writes, “Alignment with the working class could not be envisaged other than in terms of the organisations which, for better or worse, continued to hold the loyalty of the majority of conscious and active workers.”4 While Birchall himself disagreed with this analysis, it was a widely held belief among French revolutionaries of this generation. 

Historically, this turned out to be impossible. Althusser greatly underestimated the degree of bureaucratization that had taken hold, his perspectives remained marginal, and the party lost its once-great support in the French working class. While this was a serious error, he is still to be credited with articulating perspectives that he hoped could win predominance in a political institution supported by the French labor movement.

Althusser believed that the best hope for the resuscitation of the party was represented by the ideas and practices championed by Mao Zedong and his adherents.5 He argued that the Soviet Union had experienced a “Stalinist deviation” rooted in economism.6 His interest in Mao, however, was fairly superficial, and his ideas can be assessed on their own merits. While he remained limited by his inheritance of Stalin’s notion of socialism in one country and his failure to fully consider the criticisms of Stalinism made by Leon Trotsky and his tradition, Althusser’s theory of ideology remains useful.

In On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Althusser attempts to register in theory what he had been unable to support in practice: that is, the new revolutionary potential that had suddenly appeared in French culture. Despite Althusser’s commitment to the masses, his writing style is often quite difficult and many of his works draw considerably on the epistemology of science. On the Reproduction of Capitalism is one on his most accessible books, and has more immediate political consequences. For this reason, it is a good choice for someone unacquainted with his project to develop an initial familiarity. Althusser believed that Marxism was widely distorted by false interpretations that depended on humanism and economism. According to Althusser, both Stalinist orthodoxy and the philosophy of Western Marxism believed that Marx conveyed insight into human species-being and the overcoming of human alienation through a historical process of economic development. He argued Marx himself had broken from the humanism of his early work, developing a scientific understanding of history only in his mature writings. Following from this, Althusser claimed that an understanding of the Russian Revolution that depended on Hegelian dialectics misunderstood Lenin’s real insight into revolutionary practice.7

Marx and Lenin, Althusser argued, understood history as overdetermined by a complex and multiple series of social and political factors, without an underlying humanist or economic guarantee for change. The revolution could only be the product of multiple interrelated social conflicts, rather than an overcoming of one basic contradiction in human experience. In his view, while the mode of production is determining of society, it can never be analyzed in isolation. While he intended his theory to explain and develop a revolutionary outlook, his rejection of humanism created the sense that agency was illusory. Without a theory of human alienation, his approach risked positing the eternity of capitalism. His work in the wake of 1968 was meant to remedy this and to explain cultural struggles in terms of a new understanding of ideology.

Althusser’s theory of ideology
An essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” was extracted from this book and has been widely distributed, anthologized, and translated.8 In it, Althusser argues for a materialist understanding of ideology. Rather than considering ideology as mistaken ideas about the world, for him ideology is essentially practical. “Ideology does not exist in the ‘world of ideas’ conceived as a ‘spiritual world,’” he writes. “Ideology exists in institutions and the practices specific to them. We are even tempted to say, more precisely: ideology exists in apparatuses and the practices specific to them.”

Althusser delineates a number of these apparatuses, most prominently the church, the school, trade unions, and the family. These social institutions have the capacity to not only inculcate a worldview that is conducive to bourgeois domination, but also enforce these beliefs by means of a series of rituals, habits, and customs, which are more or less compulsory. Because acquiescence to the ruling ideology is bound up in practical obedience, rather than intellectual orthodoxy, Althusser insists that “ideology has a material existence.”

In Althusser’s view, these ideological apparatuses can properly be described as belonging to the state, even if they appear formally separate from it. He argues that the state actually has two components: a repressive state apparatus, which includes the army, the police, and the courts, and enforces class domination directly, and the ideological state apparatuses (ISA), which maintain complicity and identification with class society. Controversially, Althusser argues that the domestic sphere of family life is included in the domain of the state, because it functions to maintain and develop an ideology that will maintain psychological adherence to and participation in class society. It is probably not coincidental that his theory was elaborated from the French context, where a strong centralized state has always overseen education as well as ecclesiastical functions. In this context, it seems rational to view the church and the school system as ideological state apparatuses. In the political culture of the United States, this seems more counterintuitive, because there is such a long history of anti-state tendencies, particularly on the right. So the immediate reaction is to find Althusser’s theory peculiar or even simply wrong, prima facie. This may be one reason why his thought has not been as influential in the United States as it has been in Europe or in South America. A strong post-Althusserian tendency in North American thought has only appeared very recently, with the work of people like Warren Montag.

It may seem that Althusser’s theory applies better to nations with very strong bureaucratic states, and greatly limited in its explanatory power if we apply it to the United States or to other situations in which state power is constrained and localized. Strictly speaking, however, Althusser’s argument is that the public/private distinction with regard to power and class domination is an idealist effect of bourgeois law that a Marxist perspective cannot accept. For him, a private school system, an independent church authority, privately owned media, or even the family, all operate as functions of the state regardless of their apparently private-sector status. 

From his point of view, even homeschooling operates as an extension of the state. How is this possible? According to his argument, the state is not a discrete institution or bureaucratic entity but rather an ensemble of all practices that maintain the potential for the reproduction of relations of production. This means that the most paranoid Tea Partier, the angriest secessionist libertarian, or the most die-hard Randian is actually a servant of the state who extend its power ideologically and perhaps even its repressive force insofar as they can function as part of an armed paramilitary militia. This is a very counterintuitive thesis to North Americans, but it might have validity. For example, Fox News, which is certainly private media, nothing like public television, and maintains a strongly “oppositional” status toward the Democratic Party, but functions nonetheless as a clear organ of state propaganda, even more so than state-owned media in other countries. Or, one can consider variousreligious groupings , such as evangelicals, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which are also independent yet simultaneously act as an adjunct to state initiatives.

Althusser argues that ideology has a profound relationship with subjective experience. He writes, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.”  What he means by this is that the practices and beliefs inherent to ideology produce a sense of identity. Our conscious experience of the world and sense of individual personhood is always bound up in effects of the social institutions that have raised and educated us. Furthermore, it is in the nature of ideology to conceal this basically artificial and imposed nature. Rather than viewing our immediate experiences as conditioned, they appear to be “free” or obvious interpretations of the world. Althusser’s point is not that an obscure veil of appearance inevitably conceals the real world. Rather, he argues that this mediated experience of the world is constructed according to a rational purpose, that is, to “ensure the reproduction of the relations of production.”  In his analysis, ideology is basically tasked with “knotting together of superstructure and base.” It is the cultural necessity that maintains the durability of a mode of production. This leads to ambiguity on the question of ideology outside capitalism. Althusser believed that ideology was a basic aspect of subjective experience, thereby persisting even in a post-capitalist society. However, because his theory and description of ideology are rooted in capitalism, it is very unclear in his work which aspects of ideology are contained in the capitalist mode of production, in contrast to a more general conceptual claim.

Althusser is often charged with holding an elitist perspective. Some commentators believe that this way of conceiving of ideology effectively prevents agency for ordinary people, because they are inevitably deluded and controlled by the ideological state apparatuses. For example, Kevin B. Anderson writes that Althusser’s theory is incapable of registering the existence of “a rebellious individual subject whose rebellion touches off wide support within an entire subjected group,” for example, someone like Rosa Parks.9 However, Althusser states very clearly that the ISAs are not permanent or stable; their ability to produce ideological practices is always limited and threatened by a basic contradiction: class struggle. In fact, Althusser’s entire project is rooted in the recognition and advocacy of organized struggle against oppression and exploitation, and the means by which class struggle appears in less economically based forms of oppression and subject formation. Jeanne Theoharis has shown that Rosa Parks’s rebellion was not the product of a spontaneous individual moment of freedom, but the consequence of an entire conscious mass movement.10 This can be understood in Althusserian terms as the appearance of class struggle in ideology. Effects of class struggle appear within ideology, and class struggle presents the possibility of a complete overthrow of bourgeois ideology. In an appendix to On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Althusser responds to the criticism of his work that it is merely descriptive and “functionalist”; that his analysis tends to make everything explained and reified by apparatuses. In response, Althusser insists that his entire theory depends on the primacy of class struggle. In fact, there would be no need for ISAs at all if resistance and struggle were not always present and in need of pacification.

Althusser’s point is that the economy is fundamentally structured by exploitation, and this exploitation always produces conflict. Ideology is a second-order formation that strives to ensure the continuation of the capitalist mode of production and continuing working-class adherence to a system that oppresses them. However, he argues that ideology cannot maintain an unbroken domination, because it is produced by apparatuses that are enmeshed in material class society. Because these apparatuses are bound up in labor, they cannot be fully owned and controlled by the capitalist state, and they are not fully reconcilable into a consistent social whole. As a result, ideology carries with it proletarian values, as well as bourgeois domination. The proletarian elements that have been distorted in capitalist ideology can be strengthened and clarified to the degree that eventually the entire edifice can be overthrown in a revolutionary process. But because individual experience is always constituted by ideology, this process of liberation must always take place as part of a commitment to working-class activity, not as a personal break with delusion and conformity. 

Terry Eagleton defended the value of Althusser’s insight by clarifying that his advocacy of theory over experience depends on this recognition of working-class theory.11 His argument was not that academic intellectuals had a superior insight; in fact, his theory of ideology presupposes that academic Marxism is in the grips of a particularly complex and advanced form of bourgeois ideology, in need of disruption by contact with working-class activity.

Althusser argues that the basic contradictions and irrationalities of the capitalist system will also interfere with the ability of ideology to fully capture a convincing experience of the world. These inherent contradictions produce “ideological sub-formations.” He argues that it was exactly these contradictions and sub-formations that characterized the eruption of discontent and insurrection by French workers and students in May 1968. In the later stages of the Russian Revolution, insists Althusser, Vladimir Lenin understood this basic framework, and that is why he was so interested in reforming education and social institutions under the rubric of the cultural revolution.12

For Althusser, class struggle takes place within ideology, and Marxist science can discern this process. He argues that the capacity to understand ideology from a scientific point of view is also a product of class struggle and the historical achievement of the workers’ movement. Many of Althusser’s readers have not understood that many of his most difficult writings are actually an attempt to introduce the effect of the workers’ movement into the academic philosophy of science (which necessarily involves difficult, specialized terminology), not an effort to dictate workers’ activity from above. Althusser says this explicitly: “The characteristic task of Marxist philosophy is to represent, in theory, the proletarian class position.”

Althusser’s work has proven enormously influential over the past half-century. Why have his ideas proven so inspirational? One striking effect of his analyses is the emphasis on the necessity of cultural norms in order to reproduce capitalist social relations. A consequence of this is that Althusser posits the family as a basic ideological state apparatus and a site of the reproduction of productive relations. While he does not flesh out the gendered aspects of this understanding of the family, the obvious result of this insight is the beginnings of social reproduction theory. It is by no means accidental that Lise Vogel and Martha E. Gimenez, two of the feminist thinkers who have contributed the most to social reproduction theory, describe Althusser as a decisive figure. Both Vogel and Gimenez credit Althusser’s innovations with stimulating her ability to rethink gendered work within the capitalist economy.13 Judith Butler has also made use of Althusser’s theory of ideological state apparatuses in order to better understand the means by which oppressed groups are given social identities.14 His work is of great value for understanding mechanisms of oppression by means that avoid reductionism while never forgetting the determining role of relations of production.15

Althusser’s emphasis on the necessity of ideology in reproducing productive relations is tied to another controversial innovation. Deemphasizing the more deterministic role allotted to productive forces in the “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he argued that relations of production must be considered primary. This anticipates and affects the perspective of contemporary historians described as political Marxists, whose outlook has sparked such stimulating recent debate in the International Socialist tradition.16 From a somewhat different point of view, Gilbert Achcar applied Althusser’s approach to history and revolution in his study of the causes and nature of the Arab uprisings of 2011–2013.17

By all means, and according to most contemporary studies, Althusser’s polemics read as extraordinarily tendentious in certain aspects. For example, he collapses together all “humanists” into one revisionist camp, he rejects Hegelian dialectics completely, and he posits a sharp, absolute break between the early and mature work of Marx.18 Many of the European thinkers who were deeply marked by his insights came to reject his positions on one or more of these issues. On all of these matters, Althusser had a worthwhile point to make, although he drastically overstated it: He saw humanism as a means of avoiding the radical nature of class struggle, and his notion of a break in Marx’s thought in 1845 is a useful heuristic for understanding a serious change in method. He did not read many of the more serious exponents of Hegelian Marxist humanism, such as Georg Lukács, very well, and as a result some of his criticisms are unconvincing.

However, the reader must be aware that when Althusser speaks of humanism, he almost always has in mind his own struggle within the PCF and the opportunist definition of humanism disseminated by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, and Roger Garaudy, the Stalinist theorist of the PCF.19 He hastily assimilates this into quite heterogeneous currents, which can make his perspective appear more unique and aberrant than it ought to. Althusser intended his writings as theoretical interventions in his own conjuncture, and as a result some of his statements, taken out of context, can produce a brittle, hyperbolic schema, easily dismissed. Patient reconstruction of his argument can reveal deeper insights than might initially appear; we owe it to the rigor of our tradition to read him more charitably than he himself did his opponents.

  1.  Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978–1987 (ed. François Matheron and Oliver Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, London: Verso, 2006), Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory (Louis Althusser’s Aleatory Materialism (trans. Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Köhli, Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), Warren Montag, Louis Althusser (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), Katja Diefenbach, Sara R. Farris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas, eds., Encountering Althusser: Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), Mikko Lahtinen, Politics and Philosophy: Niccolò Machiavelli and Louis Althusser’s Aleatory Materialism, trans. Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Köhli (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), Warren Montag (ed.), Décalages: An Althusser Studies Journal, 1:1-3 (2013).
  2.  On this event, see Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013).
  3.  See Gregory Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009), 22–23.
  4.  Ian H. Birchall, Sartre against Stalinism (Oxford: Berghahn, 2004), 155.
  5.  Anonymous (attributed to Louis Althusser), “On the Cultural Revolution,” Décalages 1:1 (trans. Jason E. Smith, 2013).
  6.  Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism (London: New Left Books, 1976), 92.
  7.  Louis Althusser, For Marx (London: Verso, 2005).
  8.  Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 85–125.
  9.  Kevin B. Anderson, “The Althusserian Cul-de-Sac,” Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture 13, no. 1–2 (2014).
  10.  Marlene Martin, “Fight Jim Crow,” Review of Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, International Socialist Review: Quarterly Journal of Revolutionary Marxism 91 (2013), 136–141.
  11.  Terry Eagleton, “Lenin in the Postmodern Age,” in Lenin Reloaded, ed. Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 42–58), 45–46.
  12.  On this period of Lenin’s thought, see Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).
  13.  Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), 186–187. Martha E. Gimenez, “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited,” Science and Society 69:1, 2005, 13.
  14.  Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 104.
  15.  Althusser struggled with mental illness throughout his life, and murdered his wife, Hélène Rytmann, in 1980. This is both a devastating tragedy and a horrific crime. However, his work needs to be judged on its own merits, and his personal action has not diminished the usefulness of his ideas for many other thinkers and activists.
  16.  Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman, “In Defense of Political Marxism,” International Socialist Review 90, (July–August 2013). Neil Davidson, “Is There Anything to Defend in Political Marxism?,” International Socialist Review 91 (Winter 2013–14).
  17.  Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprisings, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (Berkeley: University of California, 2013), 114–117.
  18.  Elliott, Althusser, 58, 66.
  19.  This is clear in his remarks on humanism in On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 139.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story